The textile industry is on the verge of a major disruption. The sustainability challenges stemming from the environmental impacts and the social aspects of conventional textile value chains are increasingly recognized, and there are growing demands to do something about it.
The textile industry today operates in an almost completely linear way: Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes and other textiles that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated. More than 60 percent of the fibers used are synthetic; cotton represents about 25 percent.
In the last 15 years, clothing production has approximately doubled, driven by a growing middle-class population and the “fast fashion” phenomenon. The textile industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions amount to 8 to 10 percent of total global emissions, which is more than those of international flights and maritime shipping combined. Water use represents 4 percent of global freshwater extraction. A tangible example of this is the fact that producing one pair of jeans requires approximately 10,000 liters of fresh water. This is equivalent to one person’s total average monthly water consumption. These numbers are mindboggling for the consumer who wants to make sustainable choices.
The EU is taking steps to introduce circularity to the textile industry, requiring separate collection of textile waste by January 1, 2025. Europeans consume an average of 26 kg of textiles per person per year. Each item is used for a shorter period, resulting in 11 kg of textiles discarded per person per year. In the European Union, this means an annual total of almost six mt of textile waste generation. Currently, globally less than 1 percent of the material used to produce clothing is recycled as new clothing (fiber-to-fiber recycling).
Man-made cellulose fibers such as viscose have been around for more than 100 years. However, the environmental implications associated with the current technologies are the catalyst for exploring new production methods that avoid the use of solvents, cellulose dissolving, and other harmful and complex chemical processes.
Eventually, the recycling of cellulose fibers or the production of novel fibers from cellulose-based plants will be very similar to the already existing pulp and recycled fiber production processes from the process technology perspective. This is where Valmet’s existing product portfolio, pilot facilities and strong process knowledge fit very well with the big picture, and where we can support our existing and new customers as they step into this new business area.
Consumer awareness of the current state of the textile industry’s environmental impacts and the lack of fiber-to-fiber recycling of textile fibers is increasing rapidly. Requirements for infrastructural adaptation such as the increasing need for the recycling and sorting of textiles will therefore also be supported by consumers’ behavioral change, not only by legislative or regulatory changes. I trust that we will see a rapid change and circulatory improvement in this almost untouched area in the near future, not only in new business opportunities, but also as a major new sustainability factor among the necessary actions for combating climate change.